Rohingya sell and buy food products in a street market in the Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / Diego Cupolo / NurPhoto

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – All around the world, the numbers are climbing. Each day registers thousands of new cases and lives lost. In Europe, now the epicenter of the pandemic, governments know that the worst is yet to come and are implementing increasingly restrictive measures to enforce social distancing and isolation.

In Cox’s Bazar we have been watching the world and holding our breath for the first confirmed case of Covid-19. With reports of the first confirmed case in the local community in Cox’s Bazar, it’s just a matter of time until the virus reaches the vulnerable population living in cramped conditions in the largest refugee settlement on Earth. Thousands of people could die.  

One million Rohingya refugees, half of whom are children, have been sheltering in sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar since August 2017 when they were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar in the face of horrific violence. For almost three years, Rohingya refugees have been telling us they want to go home and resume normal life. They want their children to go to school and for families separated by the conflict to be reunited.

So far, international attempts to hold Myanmar accountable for alleged crimes against the Rohingya and improve conditions in Rakhine state have failed spectacularly. In short, it will be years until the Rohingya see justice.  

As global life grinds to a halt in a bid to contain the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, we must remember that for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, their lives have already been in limbo for years; it is their status quo, and it will not end with the containment of this virus. 

If there is one lesson for refugees that we must take away from this crisis, it is that refugee camps, and a life in limbo, should never be considered an acceptable long-term solution. We must challenge perceptions that because the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar escaped Myanmar with their lives, they are safe. The Covid-19 pandemic is a warning to us that there is not endless time to resolve the issues in Myanmar that would finally allow the Rohingya to return home. While the people and government of Bangladesh have generously continued to shelter the Rohingya for years, life in the camps is not safe. 

Children, in particular girls, are at a high risk of exploitation, violence and trafficking. Rohingya refugees do not have access to livelihood opportunities to help them support their families. 

We are now witnessing the impact that Covid-19 is having in communities that can “social-distance,” wash hands and have access to strong health-care systems, yet this virus has still brought them to their knees. In the densely packed camps of Cox’s Bazar, options of social distancing or self-isolation are remote, with many refugees living in cramped conditions in makeshift shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin. Even simple hygiene practices such as regular hand washing become complicated feats of logistical planning when access to clean water is severely limited. 

The government of Bangladesh and humanitarian agencies have sprung into action. Rohingya refugees are included in the government’s national plan to respond to Covid-19, and food distribution agencies are developing new methods that minimize close person-to-person contact.

Rohingya volunteers are mobilizing throughout the camps to spread hygiene and prevention messaging that will protect their families and loved ones. Volunteers from the host community are being trained too, supporting everything from delivering awareness trainings to implementing referral mechanisms and medical treatment.

The humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar have already stripped back to essential-only services like health care and food distribution. This is a necessary step to ensure we are reducing the chances of transmission and minimizing the impact of this disease on the Rohingya community, but this decision too will come at a cost.

Just two months ago the Bangladeshi government approved the use of the Myanmar school curriculum in the camps, but children’s education will now have to be suspended to contain Covid-19. Our child-friendly spaces are closed and may be repurposed for medical use if the need arises. Rohingya children are now not only at risk of Covid-19 but will have to face this challenge without access to their regular support systems or safe spaces to play. 

We will do whatever we can to work with the government of Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees to protect them from Covid-19. But the fact remains, Rohingya children should not be living in these camps. They should not have to fight a global pandemic with the bare minimum needed to survive. They should be at home, at school; playing and learning.

At a time when there are more displaced people around the world than ever before, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how our systems fail the most vulnerable. Our global mechanisms for accountability and the protection of human rights have failed the Rohingya so far – it is absolutely essential that we do not fail them again.

This is a global pandemic, and the virus is now hitting the most vulnerable communities.  We must come together. Only a global response will stop the spread of the virus everywhere. This means the international community must step up to offer medical support and testing kits, share data and provide much-needed funding to support the response.

But stepping up also means so much more than that. When the dust settles, when planes start flying again and the borders reopen, we cannot go back to “business as usual,” we cannot assume we have endless time to resolve this crisis, that Rohingya children can wait. Rohingya children must be afforded a future of hope and opportunity, like every child deserves.

We may not have the power to safeguard against another pandemic. But we do have the power to ensure it isn’t the most vulnerable that end up paying the heaviest price. 

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Athena Rayburn

Athena Rayburn is Save the Children's head of advocacy in Cox's Bazar. She works on the Rohingya crisis from Bangladesh advocating for the protection of refugee and host-community children with a focus on ensuring all children and youth have access to a quality, inclusive education.